Israel needs to decide what kind of Jewish state it wants to be

It is a question that despite 70 years of statehood, Israelis have yet to answer clearly. Do we believe that as the Jewish state, Israel is the nation-state of all Jews or not?

A BOY wrapped with Israel’s national flag is seen during a parade marking Jerusalem Day last month outside the Old City Walls. Israel, the author argues, needs to assert more sovereignty (photo credit: REUTERS)
A BOY wrapped with Israel’s national flag is seen during a parade marking Jerusalem Day last month outside the Old City Walls. Israel, the author argues, needs to assert more sovereignty
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LOS ANGELES – There was almost everything that could be expected at a Jewish federation gathering: panels on fund-raising, engagement with millennials, religious pluralism, and the volatile security situation in the Middle East.
Taking place this year in Los Angeles, the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly also featured appearances by Hollywood and tech executives who spoke about what being Jewish means to them. Sean Rad, the founder of the dating app Tinder and son of Iranian- Jewish immigrants to America, explained how intermarriage is a fact of life, and how the JFNA had better come to terms with the phenomenon sooner rather than later.
It was an interesting message for a gathering that seemed uniquely focused on millennials and the younger generation, as well as ways to engage them in Jewish and federation life. Rad had an fascinating observation: millennials, he said, crave religion but need to receive it differently than the way it has been taught until now.
“Judaism will fade away if it is not repurposed,” he warned.
For a gathering that seemed to have a mix of everything, there was one Jewish demographic that was clearly missing: politicians. Except for President Reuven Rivlin, who spoke on Monday (I’ll get back to his speech shortly), there simply weren’t any, neither from Israel nor from the United States. No ministers, no Knesset members and no party leaders, except for a brief video appearance by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Same on the American side. There was Eric Garcetti, LA’s first Jewish mayor, but no one else.
It was a stark contrast to previous GAs, and seemed to be part of a message the American federations were sending both governments in Washington and Jerusalem: We are upset with you.
Last year, for example, at the GA in DC, there were a number of government officials who spoke.
The GA took place just days after the US elections surprisingly brought Donald Trump to power, and the feeling during that three-day summit was almost like a shiva. Nevertheless, people came, vented their frustration and voiced hope for the future. At least in Israel, the participants said then, it seemed they were making progress on issues pertaining to religious pluralism.
But then in June, Netanyahu made his controversial decision to overturn a previous cabinet decision from 2016 and nixed the Kotel plan without fixing it, ignoring his own “fix it or nix it” advice to world leaders today with regard to the Iranian nuclear deal.
The decision to leave out politicians was intentional.
The Jewish community is overwhelmingly democratic, and while organizers said that Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, had been invited to speak, no one seemed bothered by the lack of Trump officials at this week’s conference.
As the GA opened Sunday night in LA, in New York, the Zionist Organization of America hosted US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and former White House officials Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. How times have changed.
BUT THE federations also wanted to send a message to Israel. While the thousands of participants and definitely the JFNA leadership remain committed to the safety and security of Israel, they feel betrayed by Netanyahu and his entire government. As one prominent member of an East Coast federation asked me: “Don’t Israelis get it? They need us no less than we need them.”
For Israelis, this isn’t as obvious as some of the GA participants would like it to be. When moderating the main Israel-Diaspora roundtable on Monday, I explained what I think is the core question at stake: identity.
It is a question that despite 70 years of statehood, Israelis have yet to answer clearly. Do we believe that as the Jewish state, Israel is the nation-state of all Jews or not? If yes, there are responsibilities that come with that status. If not, that is also fine, but there will be grave consequences when it comes to the country’s relations with Diaspora Jewry.
In June, for example, when Netanyahu overturned the Kotel deal, media coverage was split in two. Most of the Israeli press focused on the potential loss in donations to Israel as a result of the crisis with Diaspora Jewry. “Billions of shekels to be lost” were the front page headlines in Yediot Aharonot and Israel Hayom. Other publications, like this paper, focused on more substantive concerns, like the need to ensure a sense of Jewish peoplehood.
Some might argue that Israel has already answered that question by deciding 15 years ago to contribute to programs like Birthright. This is only partially true. While Israel does spend some $35 million in taxpayer money annually to bring mostly American Jewish students to Israel, the money ends up getting thrown right back in to Israel’s economy – hotels, buses, tourist sites, restaurants, clubs and shopping malls.
Although much less, it is kind of like the foreign military aid Israel receives every year from the United States. That money also has to be spent in the US, where it keeps factories open and assembly lines running. It’s a win-win for both sides – the giver and the taker.
Extending a third prayer plaza at the Kotel and including non-Orthodox representatives in the site’s administration (the main sources of disappointment among progressive American Jews today), as well as legislation aimed at curbing the Reform and Conservative movements’ right to convert non-Jews in Israel, are issues that strike at the core of Israel’s national identity.
It is true that the vast majority of these progressive Jews does not live in Israel and will not in the short or long term; but if Israel is the state for all Jews, then it has a responsibility to make them feel at home. To decide that it will not is unfortunately the message this government is currently sending.
Rivlin’s speech was aimed at trying to defuse that feeling. He told the gathering that the only time his father ever slapped him was when, as a young child, he asked visiting American relatives how they could continue to live in the US and not move to Israel. After slapping him, his father told the future president that Jews need to take care of each other, not threaten each other.
“That slap made me realize that the relationship between us, the Jewish people, must be based on one simple demand: mutual responsibility,” the president said.
Rivlin’s message was twofold. On the one hand, he expressed hope that the government and Diaspora Jewish leaders would return soon to the negotiating table to try to reach a new deal on the Kotel. On the other hand, he came to give American Jews a hug.
It was a bit empty, as some of the more veteran Jewish leaders in the audience felt, but it was still a hug that left the crowd with a warm feeling inside, the kind that Rivlin is known for giving.
As sincere as Rivlin’s speech was – let’s not forget that this is the same Rivlin who years ago refused to call Reform rabbis by their title – it was difficult to disconnect it from his recently launched campaign against Netanyahu and the current coalition.
His speech at the GA came just two weeks after Rivlin’s appearance at the opening session of the Knesset, when he slammed Netanyahu and the Likud-initiated anti-police legislation. Here too Rivlin was sending, even if unintended, a message to Netanyahu: I can come speak at the GA and get a standing ovation, but you need to appear via satellite.
While this politicking might be interesting for Israelis, American Jews don’t give it that much thought. If there is one takeaway from the GA it is this: Israeli-Diaspora relations are at a crossroads.
Let’s make sure we don’t take the wrong turn.